Baltimore endures final NFL drama Deal almost derailed: Three days of negotiations last week assured Baltimore of an NFL team for 1996, but not before the league tried to make the city wait a few more years.

The Nfl Returns To Baltimore

February 11, 1996|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

CHICAGO -- Like everything else connected to Baltimore's 12-year drive to return to the NFL, the final three days of negotiations were full of anxious twists and turns that at times made it seem the city was destined for yet another disappointment.

Although the deal the league ratified late Friday morning had essentially taken shape weeks earlier, it appeared on the verge of collapse as late as Wednesday night -- just a few hours after the negotiators had broken up for dinner thinking an agreement was at hand.

The city of Cleveland had tentatively agreed to letting the Browns move to Baltimore in exchange for a promise of a team that would bear the name and colors of the franchise that had been nurtured by Clevelanders since its founding in 1946. In return, the NFL would provide financial assistance for building a stadium -- a concession never before offered to a city.

And Baltimore finally would get its team, filling a painful void left by the Mayflower vans pulling out of town with the Colts' equipment late one slushy night 12 years ago next month.

At about 9 p.m. Wednesday, the NFL's top brass -- including Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, President Neil Austrian and Senior Vice President Rodger Goodell -- made a report to a joint meeting of the league's finance and stadium committees.

The officials, who had spent months mired in four-way negotiations among Cleveland, Baltimore, the Browns and the other NFL owners, explained the deal that was coming together but also laid out the option of keeping the Browns in Cleveland and promising owner Art Modell and Baltimore an expansion team after it built a stadium.

Owners were divided

The committees were made up of 12 of the league's most influential owners, and they were not shy about expressing their opinions, according to several participants. Some, led by

Jacksonville Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver -- who beat Baltimore a little more than two years ago for his expansion franchise -- aggressively argued for making Baltimore wait.

"There were some owners who were uncomfortable with it on principle, who wondered if it was fair to move the team," said committee member and Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie.

The meeting dragged on for two hours, deeply dividing the committees, according to participants. Mr. Weaver spoke against Baltimore getting the Browns, but the other expansion victor, Carolina Panthers owner and former Baltimore Colt Jerry Richardson, took the opposite position.

Mr. Weaver and Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney argued that the storied franchise should stay where it has been supported by fans for 50 seasons.

But Mr. Richardson countered that the deal could bring the league four new stadiums. Cleveland and Baltimore would begin construction immediately, improving legislative support in Annapolis for the Redskins stadium in Landover. Even Cincinnati, where voters will decide next month whether to raise taxes for a new Bengals stadium, would get the message, he argued.

Mr. Richardson and New York Giants co-owner Robert Tisch and others argued that Mr. Modell -- a pillar of the league for 35 years -- is 70 and has had heart problems. Depriving him of football, his passion and occupation, for even a couple of years would not be fair.

The owners agreed to make one last approach to Mr. Modell to see if he would accept a football hiatus, Mr. Lurie said. Maryland Stadium Authority Chairman John Moag was not in the room for the debate. He was staying at another hotel with Mr. Modell and the Browns delegation.

They had planned to come to the meetings Wednesday to be on hand in case the committees had questions. By dinner time, though, the deal seemed close enough for the league to tell them they need not come over. Relieved, they went to dinner.

But Mr. Moag knew of the festering split within the league and its front office. The weekend before, Browns officials had engaged in some blunt conversations with league officials, saying they would not accept any deal that did not result in the Browns playing in Baltimore this year.

Browns officials spent the next few days trying to beat the trust vTC idea back into a box, and thought they had made progress. Mr. Moag, too, made it clear that he would accept nothing less than Mr. Modell's team this year. He also raised the defense that would later resonate with owners: Rejecting the Browns move would doom stadiums in Cleveland, Baltimore and, in all reality, Landover, because Baltimore lawmakers were unlikely to support Redskins funding without the Browns stadium at Camden Yards.

NFL: Can't Baltimore wait?

Late Wednesday night, Mr. Moag got the first inkling that the trust idea had come back to life. Longtime NFL spokesman Joe Browne told reporters that Baltimore or Cleveland could end up with a promise and no team. He said a vote might not be taken at these meetings -- the second convened over the past month on the issue.

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